Wonder isn’t starry-eyed

I want to talk about wonder in film. Wonder isn’t some starry-eyed luxury. It’s tantamount to messy, confused, vulnerable searching where all the possibilities of one’s world are up in the air, and one’s bearing is anxious. Wonder peeks out in mainstream film, but filmmakers should follow it and see where it goes.

One moment in season 2, episode 4 of Fleabag (2019) shows wonder breaking through life’s routine. Fleabag’s an atheist, oppositional to authority, and someone who sleeps around as she damn well pleases. She’s mourning the suicide of her best friend, dealing with her neurotic self and family as she plummets into her thirties. She’s single, burning relationships, generally rueful, barbed, and secretly naïve.

In wonderful self-contradiction, she has fallen for a young priest. It’s not just that he’s hot or her equal in wit. She seems to be in a place in life where she could use some deepening, and he seems to be keeping something deep like a secret.

The priest’s a tease. He’s not putting out. That gets Fleabag going, because she can’t manage their attraction with sex. Frustrated and gradually losing her sense of self, Fleabag flirts with religion. At first, it’s all counter-control and subterfuge. She’s going to play religion to get what she wants.

But then her inability to fit things within the routine categories of her life and her longing for something more fulfilling leads her one day to … prayer! The priest finds her. She ends up giving confession a go. She’s made her way to a confessional.

A vulnerable moment

In the confessional, Fleabag cannot contain her contradictions or the underlying grief for her best friend. She pours out her confusion. The shot is up close, a portrait in a void. There’s Fleabag — pathetic, real soul! — spinning out and searching for sense.

Here’s where wonder comes out of the closet. Fleabag begins to do what a self actually does — she searches. She doesn’t say, “This is me.” She stutters, “I, I, I” — and with a longing for all sorts of “you.”

She emotes: What is this life I’m leading? What is desire? What is responsibility? What is it to be thirty-something? How can I go on? How can I be happy? How can I be related well to my family and friends?

Wonder is an act of self searching for the world, with itself the major question. Wonder is lost and makes us more so.

But Fleabag season 2 can’t handle the ambiguity and reverts to a hackneyed framing. The priest takes advantage of Fleabag’s spiritual vulnerability. He pulls back the curtains and assaults Fleabag, although the show avoids calling it that. In the next episode, the two are screwing. The show seems to think that it is funny to give it up to Catholic priests.

For the remaining two episodes, the show undergoes the motions of comedy, avoiding the moral implications of what has happened and bringing Fleabag back to pretty much where she began.

The world in disarray

By the time Fleabag was actually praying, it wasn’t clear what sex, religion, self, prayer, or comedy meant anymore. The categories were in disarray. Confused and whole-souled, her desire was more anarchic than a shag.

Wonder opens up possibilities and sets us searching for what makes most sense. That’s the revolutionary part of it. When we wonder, the set of possibilities that we call “the world” shudders, founders, blurs, or explodes – often in slow motion. New possibilities open up, and the world as it has been given is no longer the only world possible.

We should see more people going through wonder and go through it with them. To feel wonder is not some easy thing. It shakes you. Finding the world become unknown and confused, those who wonder sense the “possibility of possibilities” (a riff from Being and Time). Everything we think makes sense becomes contingent. Not only are there other possibilities than those we took to be our world, but it’s possible for anything that we took for granted — and even for the world itself — to be otherwise. The world’s sense can be elsewhere, even unknown.

This understanding of wonder has its roots in Plato Phaedrus and extends through mystical theology. Later, it appears in the modern development of authenticity, for instance in Montaigne or in existentialism. Even the psychoanalytic tradition orbits around it.

Not in the contemporary, commodified and soulless sense, but in the sense found within the Greek philosophical and theological tradition, wonder is erotic. Eros was entirely bound up in the soul’s becoming something other, something fuller. Eros was divine. The erotic in this ancient sense is as broad as our being and searches through everything for a satisfying world.

It’s hard to make films with wonder. Wonder relies on ambiguity. Ambiguity steers us toward a world that makes more sense by making us wonder. To make films with wonder demands more ambiguity in them at the right time and it demands letting things get lost.

Senselessness, you’re not my master

I’m not asking that filmmakers make more itinerant films like Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna, although its scene on the train to Brussels with Anna smoking out the window is truly wonderful. I’m asking that filmmakers find the sweet spot where there is more ambiguity at the right time – where, as a result, the films opens up with actual, not fairy-tale, wonder.

Possibly Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade does this, neither lowly nor high in the sky. A film managing to express along its short running time the giddy, embarrassing, and scary world of being thirteen, Eighth Grade shows how the confusion of a world up in the air and of a sense of self without orientation can tumble into sense. By showing us characters who can be emotionally confused and open — with some difficulty — the film shows us people who can go off the rails and continue.

A confused, self-searching person who considers the possibility of a world beyond what we take to be possible and sees our own as happenstance is a wonderfully dangerous one. The structures of school come undone — and so too would the abusive and constrained conditions of desire for Fleabag if she’d continued wondering.

Wonder’s open confusion presses up against the bounds of the senselessness we often accept in our world. That is why wonder is quietly revolutionary. It absorbs and dissolves the categories we take to be master.

 Jeremy Bendik-Keymer lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He previously wrote “How to do things without words” for Public Seminar. He is writing a book on the politics of wonder and recommends getting more of a taste of what he’s talking about by watching Jaffar Panahi’s 1997 film, Ayneh (Mirror). Thanks to Mark Pedretti, Misty Morrison, and Leah Prinzivalli.